Both Moses and Aaron were members of the tribe of Levi---in fact they were brothers---and Miriam, the prophetess was their sister. To all the descendants of Levi was given the responsibility of erecting, maintaining, disassembling and transporting the Tabernacle and all its furniture during the Forty Years wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. The priesthood itself was in the hands of Aaron, the High Priest, who had four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, (Exodus 28:1). The two eldest sons, in line to succeed their father, were privileged to be numbered among the Seventy Elders whom God invited onto Mount Sinai to "worship afar off," while Moses came near (Exodus 24:1,2). Yet these two young men met a sudden and terrible end, recorded in Leviticus 10, when they departed from the exact instructions for the offering of incense in the tabernacle service:
"Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire on it, and laid incense on it, and offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them. Then fire came forth from the presence of the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD, (Leviticus 10:1-2).
Especially significant in what follows was the behavior of Aaron and his two younger sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, who had to continue the service without interruption while the bodies of their older brothers were carried out:
"Then Moses said to Aaron, 'This is what the LORD has said, "I will show myself holy among all those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified."' And Aaron held his peace. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, 'Draw near, carry your brothers from before the sanctuary out of the camp.' So they drew near, and carried them in their coats out of the camp as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his sons, 'Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not rend your clothes, lest you die, and lest wrath come upon all the congregation; but your brothers, the whole house of Israel, may bewail the burning which the LORD has kindled. And do not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, lest you die; for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.' And they did according to the word of Moses," (10:3-7).
Eleazar, the third son of Aaron thus succeeded his father as high priest at the death of Aaron, (Numbers 3:1-4, 20:25). Eleazar received further experiential training in the holy ways of God in the revolt of Korah, (Numbers 16), for he was the one chosen to hammer the bronze censers of the rebels into a covering for the altar. He evidently lived to a ripe old age---his death and burial are recorded at the very end of the book of Joshua:
"And Eleazar the son of Aaron died; and they buried him at Gibeath, the town of Phinehas his son, which had been given to him in the hill country of Ephraim," (Joshua 24:33).
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, grandson of Aaron, was a young man probably in his late twenties when the people of Israel were seduced by Balak into idolatry on the east side of the Jordan. Balaam, the hireling prophet had found himself unable to curse the people of God on three successive occasions, (Numbers 22-24), but he privately advised Balak that the people of Israel could be diverted from their godly course by a Midianite "banquet" prepared for them in the desert, (Jude 11, 2 Peter 2:15, Revelation 2:14),
"And Israel dwelt in Shittim and the people began to commit fornication with the daughters of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods: and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal-peor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. And the LORD said to Moses, "Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them up before the LORD in the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel." And Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Slay every one those men of yours who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor."
In the midst of an awesome, virulent plague (possibly a terrible, endemic sexually-transmitted disease found among the Midianites), young Phinehas rushed in at the critical moment---to act in a way that seems to our generation to be thoroughly outrageous. Yet his actions met with God's approval but with special commendation from the Lord.
"And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought to his brethren a Midianite woman to his family in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tent of meeting. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand; And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. Nevertheless those that died in the plague were twenty-four thousand. "
"And the LORD said to Moses, 'Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away from the children of Israel in that he was zealous for my sake among them, so I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, "Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace: And it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel."'
"The name of the Israelite who was slain, with the Midianite woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a fathers' house among the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur; he was head of the people, and of a fathers' house in Midian, "(Numbers 25: 1-17).
In recounting the history of Israel's wilderness journey the author of Psalms 105 and 106 makes special mention of Phinehas,
"They joined themselves also to Baalpeor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead. Thus they provoked him to anger with their inventions: and the plague broke in upon them. Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed. And that was counted to him for righteousness to all generations for evermore, (Psalm 106:28:31, cf I Maccabees 2:54).
These events are also noted for our instruction in 1 Corinthians 10:7-8, lest we suppose that God has changed his standards as far as immoral sexual conduct is concerned. What Numbers 25 illustrates is that sin is as contagious to God's people as a deadly plague. Sin is not a private matter but when left unjudged in one member of the Body of Christ swiftly endangers all the rest---"A little leaven leavens the whole lump." Although Phinehas' actions must have been highly unpopular at the time, he acted swiftly and righteously, reflecting no doubt the excellent training he had received from his godly father Eleazar.
Later Phinehas had a prominent role in God's judgment of the Midianites just prior to the death of Moses,
"And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 'Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shall thou be gathered to thy people.' And Moses spoke to the people, saying, 'Arm some of yourselves to the war, and let them go against the Midianites, and avenge the LORD of Midian. Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall you send to the war'. So there came out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from every tribe, and with them Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war, with the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand. And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males. And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword. And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.
"And they burned all their cities in which they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire. And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts. And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, to Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the children of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, by the Jordan near Jericho. And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp..." (Numbers 31:1-13ff).
Phinehas served as faithful priest for 19 years, the third High Priest of Israel. He is next mentioned in Joshua 22 in connection with the resolution of a dispute created by the two and a half tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh who remained on the east side of Jordan erecting an altar there. A final and interesting event in the life of Phinehas was his involvement in the civil war against Benjamin following the tragic events recorded in Judges 19 and 20. Avenging the sin of the tribe of Benjamin, the remaining tribes were twice defeated until they humbled themselves, fasted and wept before the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle which was then at Bethel. It was at Bethel that Phinehas then responded as the spokesman of the LORD, "Go up; for tomorrow I (the LORD) will give them into your hand."
Not all the priests in the line of Aaron were as godly as Eleazar and Phinehas his son. Eli, the son of Ithamar and his sons are mentioned in 1 Samuel in a very negative light. At the time Samuel was born, and later at the time Jesus was born the priesthood was far from what it ought to have been---Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, though a descendant of Phinehas, was struck dumb for his unbelief when an angel announced to him that his wife was to bear a son, (Luke 1).
According to the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, the Levitical priesthood was weak and ineffectual since it dealt only with shadows and not their underlying realities. A more powerful new priesthood was introduced by Jesus effective during this present age, "after the order of Melchizedek." It is the clear teaching of the New Testament that all believers today are priests in the household of faith, and that our perpetual High Priest, Jesus stands watch over his people night and day. However, since God has not yet fulfilled all his promises to Israel, by any means, there is more to come for the line of Phinehas: Ezra the scribe was a descendant of Phinehas as was Zadok the priest who served loyally during the time of David, (2 Samuel 8-1 Kings 4). But, Abiathar the priest, a descendant of Eli and Ithamar, was displaced, (1 Kings 2:27, 35; 1 Samuel 2:27-36). And, after the Messiah comes to Israel and the final temple is built, it is Levitical priests descended from Zadok who alone serve at the altar, (Ezekiel 40-48), the rest of the Levites being assigned to lesser tasks because of their history of compromise with God's standards of holiness. This seems to fulfill the promise God made to Phinehas,
"'Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace: And it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.'"
For both Christians and Jews, Phinehas is a permanent example of the believing faith that leads to righteous actions, to courageous deeds, and to taking a stand when all is crumbling.
Of Phinehas it is said,
"his faith was counted to him as righteousness."
Addendum: A Rabbinical Account of Phinehas
This week we read of how a Jew by the name of Pinchas jumped from obscurity, saved the entire Jewish nation and received two divine gifts from the hand of G-d!
Peace and priesthood!
Peace is perhaps the most precious thing on earth. It is the sign of the Messianic era and the goal of mankind. All strife will be reconciled and all creation will be transformed into a symphony of harmony and love. (Isaiah 11:6)
And priesthood means being able to bless others and serve in the Holy Temple!
But if we turn back a few sentences to the end of last week's Torah portion we disappointingly find that Pinchas earned these two gems by viciously murdering two people!
He publicly speared Zimri, the great leader of the entire tribe of Shimon and his non-Jewish girlfriend, Kozbi, a princess of Midian in cold blood!
This is, at first glance, completely not understood:
1) Zimri seemingly was trying to promote love and peace with the gentiles, why did Pinchas have to go and kill him?
2) Why did Pinchas get rewarded? Murder was never a praiseworthy trait in Judaism. Even King David was not allowed to build the Temple because he had the blood of war on his hands.
3) In Judaism, children at the tender age of five are supposed to be learning Torah. What type of a story is this for children?
4) 'Torah' means teaching. What practical lesson is there for us in all this? It is forbidden to just take the law into our own hands. especially by murder!
To understand this, here is a story. (Shmuot V'Sipurim by Rabbi R.N. HaCohen vol. 3 pg 229)
One of the greatest Chabad Chassidim of all time was Rabbi Hillel Paretcher. Born in Russia some 200 years ago, by the time he was thirteen he was fluent in the entire Talmud and law books and when he was fifteen knew all the works of Kabala by heart.
But then he saw the book 'Tanya' written by the first Rebbe of Chabad and he realized he had not yet really begun to serve G-d. He became an ardent Chabad Chassid under the first three Rebbes and was often sent to distant villages to strengthen Judaism until his passing almost 60 years later at the age of 74.
Once when Reb Hillel was already over sixty years old and was on one of his missions from the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Rebbe of Chabad) a terrible storm broke out and he was forced to find shelter in an inn in a small village in the middle of nowhere somewhere in vast Russia.
The owner of the inn happened to be a Jew and even recognized Reb Hillel. When he realized what an honorable guest Divine providence had sent him he was beside himself with joy and tried to do everything possible to make Reb Hillel comfortable. After all, the poor Rabbi must be miserable, he thought to himself. The storm probably wrecked his itinerary and plans and made him a virtual prisoner in his inn.
He offered him food, a bed, a warm drink, a change of clothes a warm bed, books to learn from but Reb Hillel wasn't interested in any of this.
He looked as though everything was going according to plan and all he asked for was. a minyan (Ten Jews to pray with). In other words, eight more Jews except himself and the innkeeper.
At first the innkeeper couldn't understand why Reb Hillel was so insistent, after all it was permissible to pray without a minyan, it was night and there was a storm outside. Who would possible leave their house for such a thing? It would be necessary to search the entire village ... maybe several villages! And the Jews here weren't really very religious anyway.
But the Rabbi refused to listen to reason. He was even willing to pay each person a ruble for coming. He wanted a minyan.
So the innkeeper had no choice but to put on his fur coat, scarf, fur hat and boots, lower his head to brave the wind, open the door and step outside to begin to search for Jews.
And he had more success than he thought.
In fact, after two hours of work he succeeded in finding seven more! But he needed one more! Plus himself and the Rabbi all he had was nine! Where would he ever find another Jew? And it was beginning to get really late!
But strangely Reb Hillel refused to let up. "Think!" He ordered the innkeeper, "There must be one more Jew somewhere! The Baal Shem Tov said that when there are nine Jews a tenth will soon appear. Think!"
But try as he could the innkeeper couldn't come up with anything. Then one of the others raised his head, opened his eyes wide and exclaimed. "Hey! What about Vitali! If you call him Jewish. I mean, at least he used to be! I remember when he was called Velvel. Is that okay Rabbi? I mean...if we don't use him we'll be here all night and... Well... excuse me but... we're tired!!" All the others looked silently at one another and nodded solemnly."
Reb Hillel looked at the innkeeper who was really in a dilemma and asked. "Who is Vitali?"
The innkeeper was in conflict. On one hand without Vitali he would never get this minyan business over. But on the other hand it was far to walk, there was a raging storm outside and he was certain that Vitali would refuse. He couldn't figure out why was the Rabbi was so ardently locked in on having a minyan.
The innkeeper replied, "Well, I guess Vitali is a Jew, if you can call him that. He lives in a village about two miles from here. But he doesn't believe in anything. nothing!! He married a non-Jewish woman years ago, has a few children and is as far from Jews and praying as you can get. He's not going to come. You can forget it!"
But it didn't help. "Listen" Said the Rabbi "You have to go bring him here. Tell him that I'm willing to give him thirteen rubles. You understand? Thirteen. But don't raise the price above that. Now please go and bring him."
The innkeeper wanted to just refuse. He wanted to stay home with all his heart but something about Reb Hillel made it impossible. Without thinking too much he again put on his scarf, coat, boots and hat, tilted his head down and set once more into the storm to the neighboring village and . Vitali.
Over an hour later he arrived, cold to the bone, at Vitali's door. The wind was howling and the full moon shone eerily through the snow around him. "What am I doing? This is insane!" he thought to himself for a moment. But he knocked. Louder and louder until someone groaned from inside, "one minute! One Minute!"
The door opened a crack, someone peeked out and he was let in. "I came from the next village." He explained to Vitali's wife as he shook the snow off his coat. "We need ten Jews to pray and I want Vitali to come. I'll give him thirteen rubles! Thirteen!"
Meanwhile Vitali sat up in bed, took one squinting look at his guest in the flickering light of his kerosene lamp and said in a croaking, half-asleep voice, "What!? Jews?! Pray?! Feh!! Get out of here! Fool! I'm not going nowhere for a bunch of crazy Jews. Go home!!" As he laid back down and covered his head with the blanket.
"Just as I thought!" the innkeeper said to himself. "He refused." He turned to the door bundled up, turned the doorknob and was about to open up and step outside when a woman's voice from behind him yelled .'Stop!'
It was Vitali's wife. She rushed to the bed, ripped the covers off her husband's curled-up body and screamed. "What, are you insane!? Thirteen rubles is four months wages! Why, you wake up every night to go to work for a tenth of a ruble and now someone offers you thirteen rubles! Aren't you ashamed?! I need new shoes, and a new dress. Don't you think of me?!"
Vitali mumbled something and. sat up! She shamed him!! He begrudgingly got out of bed, put on his coat and boots, mumbled something else and followed the innkeeper into the storm.
Over an hour later they arrived. it was almost midnight. Rav Hillel smiled in joy, washed his hands and stood before the group to lead the prayers.
His prayers were melodious and genuine and Vitali was touched. He stood in the corner watching and listening like a small child; almost hypnotized by what was happening.
After the prayers, which lasted almost a half and hour, Vitaly approached the innkeeper and asked who the Rabbi was, what was his name and why was he praying so earnestly.
"This is Rabbi Hillel Paritcher" the innkeeper answered, "and he always prays earnestly."
Suddenly Vitali's eyes filled with tears and his body shook unexplainably. Something was churning inside him. He sat in the nearest chair and memories of thirty years ago flooded his mind.
"Reb Hillel!" He remembered how, when he was five years old the entire village when he lived prepared for a great Rabbi to come and everyone was saying, 'Reb Hillel, Reb Hillel the entire day.
It seems that this was the same Rabbi Hillel and divine providence had brought them together again.
He approached the Rabbi, they went into a side room and two hours later Vitali came out weeping, ordered the innkeeper to give the thirteen rubles to his wife and he went to the Tzemach Tzedik to learn how to live like a Jew.
This answers our questions.
There is a mysterious difference between the Jews and the rest of the world: the Jews have a special connection and obligation to the Creator. That is what the Torah means when it calls the Jews G-d's sons (Ex.4:22) and G-d's servants (Lev. 25:42)
The rest of mankind are G-d's precious handiwork, G-d's masterpiece of love and perfection. but it is the job of the Jews to teach them this.
This is what Vitali realized when he saw Reb Hillel praying:
And this is the secret of the two gifts granted to Pinchas: Peace and blessing.
That is why Pinchas killed Zimri and was rewarded. Zimri tried to teach the entire world, by disgusting public example, that all mankind, Jew and gentile alike, was created only for selfish pleasure. And this would have destroyed all creation.
This even five year old Jewish children know is wrong. They already read in the earlier books of the Torah that Jews are sons and servants of G-d and, beginning from the Ten Commandments, that there are sexual sins.
But here they learn how important it is to serve G-d with even the most natural impulses.
The Midrash and the Zohar say that Pinchas has the same soul as Elijah the prophet, who will usher in Moshiach.
Just as Pinchas fought for the holiness of the human body and Elijah purified his physical body to the degree that he was above even death .. so will Moshiach purify all mankind and the entire physical world to a level of revealed G-dliness, peace, holiness and blessing.
It's all up to us to do all we can to bring...
Rabbi Tuvia Bolton
Yeshiva Ohr Tmimim
Kfar Chabad, Israel
January 22, 1987, July 13, 2006